A letter from the past and the present: Tokutomi Roka's 'autumn in Ryomo'

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Author: Susanna Fessler
Date: June 2004
From: Journeys(Vol. 5, Issue 1)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,943 words

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In 1893, a young writer named Tokutomi Kenjiro (pen name Roka, 1868-1927) set off from Tokyo on a few days' journey to the Ryomo region in the western mountains of central Japan. This in itself was unremarkable, as countless others had made similar journeys before. What was noteworthy was the travelogue he produced as a result of this trip. A fascinating mix of tradition and modernity, this travelogue shows us how travel writing in Japan metamorphosed during the late nineteenth century into a unique subgenre that incorporated both Japanese and Western sensibilities. (1)

The Ryomo region encompasses Gunma and Tochigi prefectures in Japan, centrally located on the island of Honshu, west of Tokyo. In western Gunma is an area known as Usui, home of a mountain pass 956 metres high. This area figures far back in Japanese history; in the Chronicles of Japan (Nihon shoki, c. 720 CE) and the Ancient Records (Kojiki, c. 712 CE) a myth of events near this pass is recounted. Throughout literary history the pass has been known for its spectacular autumn foliage. In the late nineteenth century the area also became a summer retreat where Tokyoites and expatriate foreigners alike escaped from the oppressive heat of the city. Finally, the area is part of a longer land route, the Nakasendo, between Tokyo and the regions to the south and west. (2) All of these characteristics combined to make Ryomo an enticing destination for Tokutomi Roka who, like so many others, left the urban landscape of Tokyo to take in the rural landscape and experience this history.

Tokutomi Roka was born at the beginning of the Meiji period and was the seventh and last child of a prominent samurai family in southern Kyushu. Roka's eldest four siblings were girls. The girls were followed by three boys, the second of whom died in infancy. Roka's older brother, Soho (1863-1957) was thus the family heir and presumptive patriarch. This fact left Roka forever in Soho's shadow and made the personality difference between the two more distinct: Soho was, by all accounts, gregarious, strong, energetic and outgoing. Roka was introverted and scholarly. Whereas Soho pursued two successful careers--one in publishing and one in government--Roka survived as a writer largely through his brother's employment, depending on Soho to provide patronage. Soho was well educated, both in 'Western learning'--a controversial tack to take in the early Meiji period (1868-1912)--and in the East Asian classics. Roka, too, received a solid education, but was not pushed to the extent that Soho was. In sum, the family put all its hopes on Soho and left Roka largely to fend for himself. Roka often followed in his brother's footsteps, although it would seem rather begrudgingly. As Soho left university before graduation, so did Roka. As Soho went into the publishing industry, so did Roka. As Soho converted to Christianity, so did Roka. Yet, at each step, Roka's incentives differed. For example, Soho left university in political protest; Roka left because of a woman of whom his family disapproved.

Roka thus grew up alienated from, yet dependent upon, his brother. In 1890, Soho began publication of a newspaper titled Kokumin shinbun (People's Newspaper) in Tokyo. Roka was hired as a writer and translator (he was fluent in English), and was put to work producing essays in which he had little or no interest. Among his tasks, he was asked to translate biographies of John Bright (1811-89), Richard Cobden (1804-65) and William Gladstone (1809-98), all prominent political leaders in Britain. The work did not please him--most biographies of Roka indicate that he thought of it as drudgery (Strong 1970: 26-27)--but on occasion he was offered respite, such as the trip he took to Ryomo.

Roka took his journey in early November, when the autumn leaves would be at their peak. He visited the towns of Karuizawa and Yokokawa, and the Usui Pass before continuing on to the Myogi region. Roka tells us that the purpose of his trip was to accompany his mother to his sister's house, but this happens in the first few paragraphs and from that point on the journey was a solitary one.

Roka's focus is largely on the natural landscape, as is traditional in Japanese travel writing. A more complete history of Japanese travel writing and its themes and motifs has been given elsewhere, but suffice it to say here that Japanese travel writers work from a deep, long-held literary tradition (Fessler 1999). Their work is usually a mix of prose and poetry, both of which focus more on the landscape than on the traveller. Prominent travel writers in the premodern periods include the poet-priest Saigyo (1118-90) and the haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94). The latter also travelled through Usui, and wrote of it in his work, Sarashina nikki (Sarashina Diary). Traditional travel writing (kiko bungaku) is dependent on precedent and natural imagery; authors are expected to write of scenery already firmly established by earlier writers or artists, albeit with their own personalized flourish. Urban landscapes rarely figure in traditional travel literature, with the occasional exception of the capital city. When the capital does appear, it is an object of longing and nostalgia, not a destination.

How do Roka and his travelogue fit into this tradition? When he set off from Tokyo to see the autumn foliage of Ryomo, he was taking a trip that many others had taken before him. Not only had many travelled that road, but many had written about its glories. Roka's context was new, however, in that he was a product of the modern age. Critics of Roka's 'Autumn in Ryomo' note that he included modern elements, most notably in his reference to Wordsworth (see below), and that he incorporated traditional elements in his choice of style. However, I would argue that the modern and the traditional are evident in more ways than just this; Roka copies Western travelogues in his diction and form, and he copies traditional travelogues in his allusions and focus. As the Meiji period was a wonderful pastiche of East and West, so was 'Autumn in Ryomo'.

Diction and form

One of the first things readers notice about 'Autumn in Ryomo' is the language that Roka chose. He writes this essay in the epistolary style (sorobun), a grammar based in classical Japanese but with epistolary verbal endings. Although the epistolary style was common in the Tokugawa period, by mid-Meiji when the reform movement to unify the literary and vernacular languages (genbun itchi) began in earnest, the epistolary style had fallen out of common usage. Indeed, the personal letters Roka wrote in 1893 were not written in the epistolary style (Tokutomi 1930: 69-72). This leads to the conclusion that the choice of using this style in 'Autumn in Ryomo' was clearly a literary affectation. By opting for the antiquated epistolary style, Roka was making a statement about where to place this essay: in the classical tradition. Or was he? The caveat was this: although the epistolary style was anchored in tradition, using it in travel literature was not standard. This point is lost on many Japanese commentators who have identified the epistolary style as the classical element of the work. Fukuda Kiyoto writes:

   The special characteristic of this work is the epistolary style,
   one that conveys the locale coloured in autumn hues. Despite the
   old-fashioned epistolary style, that which gives the essay a feeling
   of freshness and newness is the natural poetic personality of the
   author, who is familiar with the poetry of Wordsworth and others.
  (Fukuda 1974: 386) (3)

However, the fact is that in the canon of classical Japanese travel literature there are no works written in the epistolary style. Such celebrated titles as Tosa Diary (Tosa nikki), Journal of the Sixteenth Night Moon (Izayoi nikki), Record of the Eastern Sea Road (Tokai kiko), Journey in Kanto (Tokan kiko), and Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi) are all written as memoirs or diaries, not as correspondence. Thus, Roka's epistolary style is actually more a reflection of Western influence than Japanese influence. Travel essays published in the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often take the form of reportage or correspondence. That is, they are written as reports with personal commentary included, much as a letter would be written. They are aimed at a general audience and provide the audience with a feel for the locale. The travelogues are written in prose. Likewise, 'Autumn in Ryomo' was a report on Roka's journey, with personal commentary included. He wrote in prose (in this case, the epistolary style) and aside from two poems or partial poems, did not include verse. If he were to follow traditional travelogue style in Japan, personal commentary would be minimal and poetry would have been an integral component to the work. Instead (and counter-intuitively), by choosing this style Roka indirectly flavoured his work with a Western sensibility.

Another unusual aspect of Roka's prose is that he chose many Sinicized and antiquated locutions that could not have been easy for his readers to decipher. The resulting text is dense and flowery, sometimes to a fault. While on the surface this may have the appearance of an 'old-fashioned' style, it is not; the complex diction does not ape canonical Japanese travel literature. Traditional travel narratives characteristically have short sentences, the conceit being that they were written quickly, while on the road. One imagines the author jotting down a few lines while sitting by the side of the road for a rest, or at the end of the day before travel fatigue carried him or her off to sleep. Even when the travelogue was edited and polished for years after the fact, this style is maintained. (4) Roka's travelogue contains long sentences, many of which toy with grammar in an elusive way. He is long-winded and often writes what fairly can be called purple prose. What results is much more like what Roka's Western contemporaries were writing than what his Japanese predecessors were writing. Here is a passage from the text:

   I, of little travel experience, had only seen the autumn foliage of
   Kyoto's Sanbi region, and was surprised at the view in Ryomo. From
   the rocky mountain where I stood, the eastern front of Usui was
   entirely a brocade. To my left is a mountain valley that is a solid
   brocade, on the right is another mountain valley that is a solid
   brocade, the whole mountain is a brocade, the mountain is aflame,
   aflame in all the colours, one cannot call it a peak or valleys;
   rather it is a beautiful burning sight--a spectacle--and without
   thinking I cried out in awe. The yellows, the auburns, the browns,
   the yellowish-browns, all the other colours; I can conceive of them
   but cannot find the words; I can see them, but I cannot conceive of
   them; in this brocade landscape stained in every hue, over there on
   top of a rock is a solitary yellow maple, like cinnabar; over here
   at the bottom of the valley is a single branch that is bright red,
   like flesh blood; over there, next to a pine tree, there are two or
   three trees that are a deeper, darker red than the red of the
   setting sun; all the while, when I look at this [scene], which wakes
   up the myriad layers of brocade colours like a torchlight across
   the whole mountain, I regret that I am not a poet. (Tokutomi 1974:

I have attempted here to reproduce the run-on sentence in the original, although in English the grammar and punctuation are more demanding than in Japanese. Roka switches subjects in midstream, and repeats the image of a 'brocade' so many times that it loses its impact. He recognizes that verse would be a more appropriate and effective format than prose, but clearly feels that he is not qualified to compose it.

In contrast, consider a passage from New Zealander William Gray Dixon's (1856-1928) Land of the Morning, written in 1877 when he travelled along precisely the same route as Roka would 15 years later:

   The transcendent beauty of our route ... quite baffles description.
   A winding road, generally from 100 to 150 feet above the pools and
   rapids of a mountain stream; luxuriantly foliaged hills rising
   continuously from the river's bed, tier upon tier, until the far
   upper heights seemed almost to 'melt in the silent summer heaven';
   the bendings of our route revealing similar meanderings in the
   course of the river, as it whirled in eddies round some rocky
   headland, or emerged with a smooth green surface from beneath
   overhanging boughs, and filling the horizon with more and still
   more profusely wooded mountains; rills of ice-cold water from the
   springs in the upper recesses issuing from the dingles by the
   roadside and leaping over the grey rocks to join the main river
   and in union with it keep their compact with the distant sea;--all
   luxuriating in the untrammelled bounties of nature came upon the
   mind with such overwhelming beauty, that anything like an adequate
   description is impossible. (Matsuo 1966: 92, as cited in Cortazzi
   1987-88: 79) (5)

Like Roka, Dixon composed run-on sentences and repeated himself in an often infelicitous manner. The main difference between Roka and Dixon is that the latter focused on the immediate landscape, regardless of literary precedence, while the former focused on the autumn foliage (the stock image of the region in history).

As a second contrasting example, consider Matsuo Basho's Sarashina Diary. Basho travelled through the region in autumn, but barely mentioned the landscape. An arduous journey that took weeks resulted in a terse travelogue in which he wrote: 'We passed through many a dangerous place, such as Kakehashi, Nezame, Saru-ga-baba, Tachitoge, the road always winding and climbing, so that we often felt as if we were groping our way in the clouds'. (6) There is no further description of the view or flora and fauna. Other early travellers to the region, such as Fujiwara Tomonari mirror Basho's brevity. Admittedly, both Basho and Tomonari had secondary, religious inspiration for their journeys; their dramatically different styles still show us how much Roka had absorbed from Western works, and how little traditional Japanese literary style figured in his prose.


Japan in 1893 was rapidly joining the Industrial Revolution of the West. In Usui, the opening of a railway line to the south (in 'new' Karuizawa) and the abolition of the alternate attendance system had reduced 'old' Karuizawa to a backwater town. (7) Yet, this is where Roka chose to travel because he wanted to experience, albeit vicariously, literary history. That is, he wanted to travel the same route as famous authors before him, and he wanted to be in places where famous events had taken place. This was a facet of Roka's traditional side.

Usui certainly played an important role in Japanese history and Roka did an excellent job of incorporating many of the connotations associated with the region. Among the allusions that Roka offered in 'Autumn in Ryomo' was one to the myth of Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (as recounted in the Ancient Records) looking toward Azuma and grieving for his lost maid: 'This place, even now, holds in secret the ancient past when Ko usu no mikoto stood on this peak and turned his head to stare at the sky above Azuma, lamenting his lost princess' (Tokutomi 1974: 162). (8) The reference is a conflation of two passages from the Ancient Records: Book Two, Chapters 84 and 85. In Chapter 84 Yamato Takeru laments the loss of his wife, the Princess Tachibana, while crossing Ashigara Pass (in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo). In Chapter 85 he travels west to Shinano (the area in which Tokutomi Roka was travelling) and crosses the mountains there (Philippi 1968: 241-45). The chapters are fairly well known, and Roka could expect his readers to recognize the allusion. Later, Roka noted a monument erected with an inscription:

   About seventeen or eighteen blocks up above the shrine where Yamato
   Takeru passed, there is now a large stone where [Yamato Takeru] came
   and gazed; the stone has 'Thinking of One's Wife Stone' carved into
   it. Below the pass there is a stele erected with the following poem
   by Seki no Hashimori:

      In ages past
      Reflecting over again
      Mt Usui,
      Even now the beloved
      Sky over the Azuma road. (9)

(Tokutomi 1974: 162)

With these passages, Roka established the theme of lamentation. The theme comes not only from the Ancient Records and the Chronicles of Japan, but also from a source Roka does not mention directly, the Manyoshu (Collection of Myriad Leaves). In the Manyoshu are the following two poems which were written in Usui:

   At sunset
   In sun that crosses
   The mountains of Usni,
   My wife's fluttering sleeves
   Were clearly visible.

(Poem 3402 of the Man'yoshu)

   In the faint light
   The mountainside at Usui--
   When I crossed it,
   I could not forget
   My beloved wife. (10)

(Poem 4407 of the Man'yoshu)

Thus, we see that Usui evoked a sad feeling of loss. What Roka did not mention, or even allude to, was that the poetic association of Usui--that of longing for one's wife or soul mate--must have been particularly painful for him. Six years earlier he had fallen deeply in love with a student at Doshisha Girls' High School, Yamamoto Hisae. Although the affair was complicated, the end result was that Roka was forced to sever all ties with Hisae because the families disapproved of the match. (11) It was a relationship that was difficult for him to forget, even after he married Harada Aiko in 1894. It was natural for Roka to head to Usui, then, to lament his loss of Hisae.

At the point when he was travelling in Usui he had returned to live in Tokyo from a sort of self-exile in Kyushu, but his relationship with his brother was still rocky from the incident involving Hisae, and also because Soho was his employer in a job he disliked. The trip to Usui was an escape from that existence, if only temporarily. Germane to this, Roka wrote:

   If I am not someone in a painting by Wang Wei [701-761] then I must
   be someone in a poem by Wei Yingwu [737-c. 792]. My whole spirit
   feels as if it is dripping like water into the quietude. It is like
   the line from the Meng Jiao poem, 'Travellers in the mountains are
   honest all by themselves'. (12) The road enters an area where there
   are many fallen leaves; the sound of the rain grows much louder.
   (Tokutomi 1974: 163)

The Chinese poem that he quotes in part above is a four-couplet poem about the different mindset one has in the mountains, particularly in contrast to the life of a bureaucrat in the city. The implication is that being in the mountains calms the mind and rectifies the self; Roka probably felt that this very much applied to him, as although he was not a bureaucrat, his life in the city was unpleasant and, without the love of his life, one of drudgery. The mountains offered an escape not only from his job, but also from his family's oppression.

Abruptly, after the passage quoted above, Roka claimed that as he walked through the rain he was put in mind of the poems of William Wordsworth (1770-1850), which he carried in his pocket.

   Thinking of the line, 'Soft is the music that would charm forever',
   I realized that those poets who drunkenly criticized the world were
   not immortal; examining the line, 'Of joy in widest commonality
   spread', I realized that unsympathetic poets, those who are not
   true poets of the common people, can never survive through the
   ages. (Tokutomi 1974: 163)

The lines (quoted in English) come from two separate poems: 'Not Love, Not War, Nor the Tumultuous Swell' (1823) and 'Home at Grasmere' (Part I, Book I of The Recluse, c. 1806). Roka was making two points. First, that the Daoist poets of China, who characteristically drank copious amounts of alcohol and lived lives of abandon, looked for immortality in the wrong place. Instead of the hedonism of inebriation, they should have focused on the quiet, eternal aspects of the natural world around them. In other words, their philosophy was a human construct and hence fallible. We also later understand that these poets, by nature of their social rank, could not appreciate the commoner's emotions and thus were inferior. Second, Roka was emphasizing the importance of a common purpose. He recognized Wordsworth as a celebrant of the common man and common language, and went on to compare Basho with Wordsworth (Basho, although of samurai stock, deigned to mention commoners in his poems when other poets did not; Basho's poetry was also considered more accessible than the typical waka of earlier eras). What is odd, and difficult to convey in translation, is that Roka used particularly difficult language to praise simple language. When he refered to common language, however, he may have had in mind language that addressed common concerns, irrespective of actual diction.

These thoughts of commonality carried Roka toward a political transition:

   The strife between capital and labour, prosperity and poverty grows
   greater and greater, and it is certain that aridity and pathos in
   the world shall increase. The superior should teach empathetic
   self-control and patience [in helping] the inferior achieve their
   goals. They should lead there and comfort here; at the very least,
   it is first the responsibility of religion and second the
   responsibility of poetic literary studies to distribute spiritual
   wealth evenly in society. Setting aside a discussion of the decline
   of religion, I worry now about the stagnation of poetry today, such
   as there has never been before. (Tokutomi 1974: 163)

This is the only overtly political passage in the entire work, which otherwise focuses on nature and travel. It reads awkwardly, both for its diction--words like 'capital' and 'labour' seem out of place among the 'brocades of foliage'--and for the lack of context--why mention economics here? To the modern reader, this political statement is out of place, but to the contemporary reader, it was salient to a debate of the time. In April 1890, another of Soho's publications, Kokumin no tomo, had launched a column called 'Rodosha no koe' (The labourer's voice), dedicated to the current debate about labour laws (or lack thereof) in Japan. Work conditions for the average blue-collar worker in the 1890s were poor at best, and many periodicals (not just Soho's) published stories on the problem. It was a debate that reached it peak at about the same time that Roka took his trip. It is thus no surprise that it appears here, sandwiched between Tang poetry and autumn foliage. This is a distinctly modern element, though, and one that has no particular tie to the travelogue tradition.


With a few exceptions such as the political commentary mentioned above, Roka's focus is on the historical and natural significance of the Usui region. He had much to build on--the myths of the Ancient Records and Chronicles of Japan, waka poems from the Manyoshu, haikai poetry by Basho, plus many miscellaneous references. Roka began on the right foot by choosing the proper season: autumn. It was a quiet time in the area, as all summer holiday-makers would have decamped for the city. It was the perfect time to see Usui, because the colours of the foliage would have been at their peak. Although Roka does not explicitly tell his readers this, it is implicit that this is truly the right moment to visit. The remnants of the summer take the form of signs in English advertising a Christian meeting group; in other words, foreigners go to Usui at the wrong time and cannot possibly enjoy it for its true beauty. But no matter--by the time the trees have changed colour, the foreigners will all have left for the season, and Roka (representative of the Japanese) will have free reign of the place. Autumnal colours dominate almost all of his landscapes: they are brilliant, profound and luminous. It is also important to note that when he was not in the presence of the 'right' flora, he refused to substitute the 'wrong' ones. Unless one was familiar with codified seasonal referents, though, this careful focus would not be evident. Let us examine a contemporary travelogue of Usui by a Westerner (who was unaware of the seasonal referents) to see how Roka's writing differs.

Mary Crawford Fraser (1851-1922), the wife of Hugh Fraser, the British Ambassador to Japan from 1889 to 1894, lived in Tokyo but holidayed in Usui. The Frasers built a summer retreat in Karuizawa (just west of the Usui pass) in 1890 and Mary spent the oppressively hot summers there. They dubbed it their 'Palace of Peace'. Her experiences are well documented in the letters she wrote during that time, and they provide a meaningful contrast to Roka's travelogue (see Fraser 1982). Indeed, Roka mentions visiting the Frasers' summer house, although it was empty because the Frasers had repaired to Tokyo at the end of the season. First, Roka's passage:

   There are many country houses here of both domestic and foreign
   dignitaries. There is, up the mountains from the station, the
   summer house of the British Ambassador. When I took a look up the
   road, I saw that a natural hedge created a hedge line, and a
   natural spring created a pool. Pine trees were left to grow untamed
   in the garden, and in the centre there was the house, which is an
   eclectic blending of Western and Japanese [aesthetics]. It is an
   elegant abode, and one that makes me think of the summertime as a
   pure, clean time. The area of the estate is 2,000 tsubo. The master
   was gone for the season, and the door was locked. There was no
   housekeeper around. The Western flowers were desolate and gave a
   nod to the autumn season; a babbling brook made the only sound.
   (Tokutomi 1974: 161-62)

Here Roka was in a poetic bind, as the flowers were 'wrong' and he was surrounded by pines instead of colourful deciduous trees. His response was to play down the flora and instead focus on other characteristics of the property.

Mary Fraser was more verbose in her letters than Roka was in his essay, but the following short excerpt about the grounds around the summer house is representative of her tone and focus:

   Over my head the pine branches meet in arches of kindly green; the
   pillars of my hall are warm brown trunks, roughened in mystic runes
   by the sun and the wind, and full of sweet gums that catch and cling
   to my hand if I lay it against the bark; underfoot a hundred layers
   of pine needles have been weaving a carpet so elastic that the
   weariest foot must press it lightly; and, lest I should want for
   music, a stream, deep-running between hedges of wild clematis and
   white hydrangea and crowding wisteria tangle, sings a cool tune near
   by, while the hum of happy insects in the air sounds the high note
   of noon, the hot Eastern noon, when every bird is still. (Fraser
   1982: 200-01)

Mary Fraser responded to the place in an immediate sense, and because she could not read the Manyoshu or Basho's poetry, there was no way for her to know what she was 'supposed' to appreciate about Usui. To her credit, she mentioned many plants by name--the hydrangea and the wisteria, in particular, make frequent appearances in Japanese literature--but they are not the 'right' ones. That is, wisteria is a seasonal referent to spring, and hydrangea is a seasonal referent to summer. It does not matter, from a Japanese standpoint, that she did indeed see these flowers blooming in Usui. What matters is that Usui was not known for these flowers, so they should be beneath notice in a travelogue. Roka, on the other hand, mentioned relatively neutral flora: the pines (which can be associated with the end of the year, but were not necessarily) and the hedge (which can be associated with both summer and winter, depending on its condition). By doing this, Roka took the literary safe road instead of using distinct seasonal referents in an odd manner. The rule of thumb when writing travelogues, then, was to ignore or play down the seasonally incorrect referents, even if they occupied a prominent part of the landscape; and, regardless of awkwardness, mention the correct seasonal referents wherever possible.

One of Roka's secondary foci was the rain. It took on a life of its own in the sounds it made falling on the trees and grasses. The name Usui, also, is a derivative of a term meaning 'weak sunlight', and the poetic focus in classical poems is often rain or mist. The rain was decidedly not gloomy or unpleasant, however. It was a friendly presence, to be welcomed by the solitary traveller. As Roka put it:

   The mountain is enveloped in light showers, and is as if it were
   speaking. The sky and the mountain do not have voices, but the
   sound as the rain falls on the dry eulalia, and the sound when
   the rain falls on the dried leaves on the tree branches mix with
   the sound of the Usui River that flows invisibly through the
   valley among the pines, and these sounds fill the mountains.
   (Tokutomi 1974: 163)

The term Roka uses for 'light showers' was a seasonal referent for late autumn, shigure. Even if he had been in a downpour, though, one suspects that he would have chosen to describe the rain using this term because of its propriety. When Mary Fraser wrote of the weather, it was sunny and glorious; Usui was a cool, green paradise, until a typhoon came and brought a deluge of rain. One finds it hard to criticize her for this, as surely the typhoon was a memorable event on her journey and it was, after all, typhoon season. However, a full-blown typhoon is not a seasonal referent. (13) If a contemporary Japanese were to read Mary's letter, he would undoubtedly have been bemused by her choice of topic. A rough equivalent would be to write a travelogue about Washington, DC, in the winter, focusing on a landscape denuded of all cherry blossoms.

Let us look at one more example to show how traditional Roka's focus was. A prominent feature of the terrain near Usui is Mount Asama, which lies to the north-west of the Usui Pass. Asama is an active volcano over 2,500 metres high and its terrain is foreboding as it towers over the Usui region. When Matsuo Basho passed by Asama in 1688 at the end of his journey to Sarashina, he wrote:

   Blowing the gravel
   off the ground on Mount Asama,
   an autumn gale.

(trans. Ueda 1992: 212)

When Roka passed through the same region in 1893, he wrote: 'Arrived at Karuizawa station past nine o'clock. When I got off the train the wind from the foot of Mount Asama blew coldly and suddenly on my face, piercing my skin' (Tokutomi 1974: 161). This stark image of Asama was stock. Basho's poem appeared in more than one collection, and it is likely that Roka had it--or perhaps an earlier poem--in mind when he wrote his own terse sentences. By contrast, Mary Fraser wrote:

   From the top of the pass we descended quickly and easily for a
   little way, and then stood for a few minutes to gaze at Asama Yama,
   the great active volcano which dominates all this side of the hills,
   and has more than once filled the upland plain of Karuizawa with
   ashy desolation. It rises very grandly from beyond the green
   foothills, looking far nearer than it really is. Heavy clouds of
   smoke pour from the crater, which looks from Karuizawa towards the
   southwest, and takes the form of a horizontal tunnel into the
   mountain, as I am told. From that point on the pass there is a
   wonderful evening effect, as the sun sinks almost behind the peak
   and rims its heavy clouds of smoke with crimson and gold. We lost
   it as we plunged into the deep-cut paths below; and when at last
   we reached our own boundaries, the grey twilight calm was hushing
   the hills to rest. (Fraser 1982: 200)

In the end, Mary Fraser's view of Asama is colourful and lush, very different from her Japanese counterparts'. It is possible--indeed, likely--that Roka saw the same landscape as Mrs Fraser, but he knew that Asama should be described as barren and harsh, not verdant or appealing.

One could cite many more comparative passages, but the final result does not change. Roka evoked the traditional scenes and imagery of the landscape. Here he was being traditional and not modern at all. Critics seem to have missed this point entirely, perhaps because they, too, have so internalized the poetic associations that they took them for granted.


'Autumn in Ryomo' is a conglomerate of new and old. But the antiquity is in much more than the epistolary style. Aware of it or not, Roka was influenced by a poetic aesthetic that profoundly informed the focus and allusions of his travelogue. In the end the epistolary style shows more of an innovative, modern bent than Roka probably intended. It seems likely that he chose the form to add a flavour of antiquity and legitimacy, but because it was not the traditional form for the genre, it served only to imbue the text with an odd anachronistic air. This is not to say that the work is a failure; the tendrils of allusion weave expertly through the text in a way that merits close attention if not annotation, and the seasonal referents are well evoked. Unbeknownst to him, however, Roka was writing one of the last travelogues to depend so heavily on the proper referents. With the progression into modernism came the jettisoning of these stock images in preference for more Western-style travelogues.


(1) The work was entitled 'Ryomo no aki' (Autumn in Ryomo) and was published in the newspaper Kokumin shinbun. The section examined here is the first part of that work, 'Usui', which appeared serially from 7 November to 12 November 1893.

(2) The Nakasendo was heavily travelled during the Tokugawa Period (1600-1867), largely by provincial lords (daimyo) who were required by the shogunal alternate attendance system to spend at least half of each year in the capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo) and the remaining time in their respective provinces. Of course, there was also commercial traffic along the Nakasendo, which increased over time with the commodification of the economy.

(3) Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

(4) A good example of this is the work of Matsuo Basho (1644-94), whose major travelogues were all published posthumously. Basho revised the manuscripts carefully and changed them significantly from the real events of his journey. Yet, the short-sentence style remained intact.

(5) The full title of the work is The Land of the Morning: An Account of Japan and Its People, Based on Four Years' Residence in that Country, Including Travels to the Remotest Part of the Interior.

(6) Translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa.

(7) The Abt railway system had been completed only months before Roka's journey, and by all accounts dramatically changed the nature of travel in the region.

(8) 'Ko usu no mikoto' is another name for Yamato Takeru.

(9) Seki no Hashimori (d. 1883) was a National Learning scholar.

(10) The first line, 'In the faint light' (hinakumori), is a poetic reference (uta makura) to Usui.

(11) For more details on this affair, see Kenneth Strong's introduction (Strong 1970: 19).

(12) The line of Meng Jiao's poetry is from poem 11, fascicle 375 of Quan Tang shi. The full poem reads:

   South Mountain stuffs all heaven and earth,
   Sun and moon grow up from its stones,
   The high peak at night holds back the sun,
   The deep vales are never bright by day.
   Natural for mountain people to grow straight,
   Where paths are steep the mind levels.
   A long wind drives the pines and cypresses
   With a sound that sweeps the thousand hollows clean.
   Who comes here regrets that he ever studied.
   Morning after morning, to be close to floating fame.
   Translation by A.C. Graham (1965: 65).

(13) There is a summer referent, aoarashi (green storm), that refers to a strong wind that comes during the season in which green leaves are fully developed.


Cortazzi, H. (1987-88) 'The Nakasendo as Seen by Victorian Travellers', Proceedings of the Japan Society 108: 71-87.

Dixon, W.G. (1882) The Land of the Morning: An Account of Japan and Its People, Based on Four Years' Residence in that Country, Including Travels to the Remotest Part of the Interior. Edinburgh: Gemmell.

Fessler, S. (1999) 'Early Overseas Travel and Travel Writing in Japanese', The Journal of Intercultural Studies 26: 20-44.

Fraser, M.C. (1982) A Diplomat's Wife in Japan. New York: Weatherhill.

Fukuda, K. (1974) 'Kaidai' (Explanatory introduction), in Fukuda Kiyoto (ed.) Meiji kiko bungaku shu (Collection of Meiji travel writing), vol. 94 of Meiji bungaku zenshu (Collected writings on Meiji culture), pp. 379-91. Tokyo: Chikuma shobo.

Graham, A.C. (1965) Poems of the Late T'ang. New York: Penguin.

Man'yoshu (Collection of myriad leaves) (1973), vols. 4-5 of Nihon koten bungaku zenshu (Collected writings of classical Japanese literature). Tokyo: Shogakkan.

Matsuo Basho (1966) The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. London: Penguin Books.

Philippi, D.L. (trans.) (1968) Kojiki. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.

Strong, K. (1970) 'Introduction', in Tokutomi Kenjiro, Footprints in the Snow: A Novel of Meiji Japan. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Tokutomi Roka (1930) Shokanshu (Collection of letters) in Roka zenshu (Collected writings of [Tokutomi] Roka), vol. 20. Tokyo: Shinchosha.

Tokutomi Roka (1974) 'Ryomo no Aki', in Fukuda Kiyoto (ed.) Meiji kiko bungaku shu (Collection of Meiji travel writing), vol. 94 of Meiji bungaku zenshu (Collected writings on Meiji culture), pp. 160-70. Tokyo: Chikuma shobo.

Ueda, M. (1992) Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Susanna Fessler

Department of East Asian Studies

State University of New York, Albany, USA

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A135119028